(Gate) Crashing the Prerelease

I made a pact with myself long ago, before I even saw any of the cards, that I would be playing Dimir at the Gatecrash prerelease.

Whispering Madness

If you’ve been following any of my Cube Drafts, my choice of guild really shouldn’t surprise you. My love affair with blue and black goes back nearly to the beginning of time. I’ve mentioned a couple times that before I played Magic competitively, I was very much involved in the Street Fighter tournament scene. After I made the trip to California to compete at Evolution (this was before they held it in Las Vegas), it seemed that I accomplished everything I could accomplish. My Street Fighter career was waning, and I knew it. The fact that my local arcade was closing down and I wouldn’t have a place to play anymore was the final nail in the coffin. I was never going to be anything more than the local hero, so I hung up my joystick for good.

One night, after visiting some friends in Toronto, I spent the entire two-hour drive home talking about Magic with a friend. I played way back in high school, so I knew how to play the game, but I had no idea there was a big tournament scene for it. I had an unfulfilled hunger for competition, so a few days later, I stopped by my local nerd shop and bought a few boosters of the current sets. I showed up for my first Friday Night Magic with a cobbled-together deck of random commons and whatever old cards I had that were Standard-legal. Despite being crushed, I knew that I found a replacement for Street Fighter.

Underworld Dreams
My first sincere attempt at making a competitive deck was trying to break Underworld Dreams. I made a silly combo with it and cards such as Wheel and Deal and Teferi's Puzzle Box. It wasn’t good by any means, but it was certainly better than what I was playing before. It was also a blast to play. I was actually beating people without Tier 1 decks fairly consistently, and the What-the-hell-is-this!? reaction from my opponents made it all worth it.

I’ve never been a big fan of the attack step, and Dimir is all about finding alternate paths to victory. Whether I’m assembling some ridiculous combo or controlling the game and ensuring an inevitable victory, Dimir decks are among the reasons I love this game. So, even when I saw the spoiler and the early chatter about how “bad” Dimir was going to be for the Gatecrash prerelease, I never once entertained the notion of reneging on my pact. The fact that Dimir was by far the least popular guild made it so I didn’t even have to preregister.

I’m sure you all are dying to see my pool by now, so here it is:

Unlike the Return to Ravnica prerelease, it looked as though I was actually going to get to play my chosen guild. From what I can tell, there are two typical Dimir decks: defensive mill decks and offensive cipher decks. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have the right cards to fully dedicate to either strategy, so I went with the old dependable evasion-plus-removal workhorse. Here’s what I played:

A few notes about the deck:

Hands of Binding
  • I don’t have quite enough evasive creatures to make the more expensive cipher cards worth playing, but I feel that I can justify Hands of Binding. Unlike the other cards, it has a tremendous impact on the board, so it’s worth taking the risk that I don’t have a good creature to cipher onto.
  • Even in a deck that isn’t dedicated to milling, Consuming Aberration is still a bomb. It doesn’t take much work to make it gigantic, and preventing it from attacking doesn’t stop it from killing your opponent by itself.
  • Riot Gear isn’t usually that impressive, but I need some way to block bigger creatures.
  • There’s pretty good synergy with Simic Fluxmage and Sapphire Drake I can take advantage of.
  • The Sage's Row Denizens aren’t meant to mill my opponent out, but they have a decent body for the cost and help enable the late-game bombs like Consuming Aberration and Sepulchral Primordial.

I actually really liked my deck, but I knew it was still going to be an uphill battle. Boros and Gruul seemed like the guilds to beat, and I was going to need all of my dirty blue mage tricks to win. It was definitely the first time in a long time that I thought I wasn’t favored to make Top 8 at a local prerelease. I’m not going to do a super-detailed, round-by-round report, but the highlights included being 20’d out of nowhere by an Aurelia, the Warleader and playing against a small child who tried to attack me with a Skullcrack. I ended up finishing an underwhelming 3–3, but honestly, my matches were generally very close and could have gone either way.

Early Impressions of Gatecrash

Psychic Strike
Boros and Gruul were definitely the most popular and successful guilds at my prerelease, and overall, the format seems quite fast. Not quite as fast as, say, Zendikar, but turn-five or -six kills weren’t uncommon. Based on my experiences, I’d say Dimir isn’t exactly the most powerful guild in Gatecrash, but it’s nowhere near as bad as people make it out to be. Oddly enough, Psychic Strike was one of my best cards. My games often involved stabilizing the board and pecking at my opponent with evasive creatures. Having a cheap, hard counter trumped any potential game-winning bomb he might draw while still allowing me to put pressure on him. The cheap removal spells such as Dimir Charm and Devour Flesh were also very valuable against early aggressive starts.

I found myself having a really hard time against Gruul, mostly because of bloodrush. I would often be forced into having to double-block and being blown out. They’re far more likely to have a bloodrush creature than I am to have a removal spell, and I can’t just declare no blocks indefinitely. A small part of it is that I haven’t yet memorized all of the bloodrush effects, so I’m sure that some of my blocks were suboptimal. Still, whenever I don’t have a removal or bounce spell in hand, I live in fear of bloodrush.

Boros felt a lot closer—as long as I can keep the player off battalion, his creatures are easy to deal with for the most part. Of course, he can still nut-draw, and Boros has an insane number of bombs (like Aurelia—grumble, grumble).

I didn’t play against Simic, Orzhov, or the mirror, so I don’t have a lot to say about those matchups at the moment, but you can expect more from me on that in the future.

For more general impressions about the prerelease, I asked people online what their MVPs were. Here’s what Facebook had to say:

Jon Rowe: The 3/2 and 5/4 bloodrush guys seem absurdly strong. Also, Act of Treason is very good in Boros.
Marc Anderson: No real MVP, but the Horned Turtle with extort was really solid. I opened Boros but ran W/B/r, R/W/g, and R/G/w throughout the day, and he carried me a long way.
Matthew Hoyt: Madcap Skills, Rubblebelt Raiders, just about anything bloodrushable. Gruul is insanely strong.
Adam Michael: While I played Boros, the Orzhov mechanic seemed really good in Limited. Basilica Guards was just unreal-good in many situations.

I also posted a thread on the Magic subreddit, and here were some of the responses:

“Omg Madcap Skills was super-borked on everything that had a power; like seriously, that card was stupid-good. Either they had Muggings or they died.”
Holy Mantle. I could make a creature +2/+2 and unblockable or pair it with Guardian of the Gateless to block all creatures.”
Dutiful Thrull in Orzhov. Mostly because I got a ton of extort and other defensive/grindy cards, and having a wall to hide behind was exactly what I needed every game.”
“I played Dimir, and Deathcult Rogue was my all-star. Won me a few games just by dropping him early. On the flip side, I lost two matches strictly to Madcap Skills. That card wrecked my face if I didn't pull removal in time. And one guy had multiples that I couldn't deal with.”
Gift of Orzhova. Insane card . . . all I did was put it on a 2/3 guy and beat face. Won at least four games with it.”
“Me and my madcap SKILLZ brought me to second-place victory at my store. In Limited, the humongous clock it provided in addition to evasion was incredibly relevant. Runner-up had to be Skyknight Legionnaire—came out turn three consistently for me and enabled battalion quick every game. Overall, great evasive creature that also gave new Boros players another synergistic game plan of popping Legionnaire down turn three to turn on battalion as soon as the third creature hit the board.”

Madcap Skills
The recurring theme here is that Madcap Skills is real. You absolutely need to have a plan against that card, and it’s a big reason that having cheap removal spells is incredibly important in this format. If you’re caught unprepared against an early Madcap Skills, you die—plain and simple. Defensive decks are still possible, though, and Orzhov definitely outperformed my expectations. If you can clog up with board with defenders, sooner or later, your extorts will grind you out a win. The big loser was Simic, as I consistently heard about how bad it was. At this stage, my super-scientific testing methods allow me to rank the guilds thusly:

  1. Gruul
  2. Boros
  3. Orzhov
  4. Dimir
  5. Simic

This could be completely different in Draft, in which you have a bit more control over what cards you have. I’m really looking forward to seeing how it plays out. Schedule permitting, I’ll do an online prerelease again, so stay tuned for more videos once the sets comes out.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you guys next time.

Take care,
Nassim Ketita
arcticninja on Magic Online